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Transparent or not, give Webber’s reoganization plan a chance

Mayor Alan Webber’s plan to reorganize city government has created a deep divide in Santa Fe’s “governing body” – the eight-member City Council plus the mayor.

Three councilors – Renee Villarreal, Michael Garcia and JoAnne Vigil Coppler – have been steadfast in their criticism of the reorganization that will bring together various city agencies into three “super departments” and greatly reduce the number of directors who report directly to the city manager.

Mayor Alan Webber’s plan to reorganize city government has provoked divisive debate at City Hall. ( Eddie Moore/Albuquerque Journal)

The critics accuse the Webber administration of trying to rush through the reorganization without transparent public vetting or input from city workers, including those affected by pandemic-era furloughs. Webber’s budget for the fiscal year assumed the reorganization was a fait accompli before the council had a vote.

Webber says the new layout will eliminate silos in city government and increase efficiency in city services, and that Santa Fe’s budget crisis, caused by the COVID-19 economic recession, created both the need and an opportunity for significant change.

Garcia managed to postpone a final vote on reorganization for a couple of weeks by citing a legal requirement for a financial analysis. When the analysis was eventually provided, it showed that Webber’s changes would cost only an additional $21,000, an amount that is well below chump change in a $319 million city budget. The reorganization was approved in a 6-3 vote on Wednesday.

The critics have sometimes been harsh. Garcia said the council has been disrespected. Vigil Coppler called how the plan was advanced “hogwash.”

There may be other politics or interpersonal issues going on here.

But the Webber administration has invited criticism on the transparency issue by, well, not being transparent. This is probably the least transparent administration in recent memory.

Under Webber, the city has made the entire process of awarding contracts to private entities secret until after the contract is awarded, a practice highlighted by the secrecy surrounding the choice of a developer for the city-owned Midtown Campus.

The city also has repeatedly and disingenously cited the state procurement code as the reason for a secret contracting process. But, we state again here, the city is under no requirement to follow the state code and the majority of the governing body voted to reject a proposal to open up the contracting process somewhat.

City Hall also tried to make the bogus argument that taking a lot of public comment about what kind of development should take place on the Midtown Campus, which was in fact a good thing, somehow made the secret process used to choose a developer actually transparent.

There also have been problems prying public records from the city bureaucracy. As we’ve chronicled before, it took eight months for the city to provide the Journal with documentation of how much police overtime is paid out in a year, as city representatives repeatedly maintained no such documentation existed.

But any lack of transparency about the reorganization or trying to rush the plan through doesn’t speak to the actual merits of the reorganization. Some of the basics sound good, such as having seven instead of 17 agency chiefs reporting to the city manager.

And, remember, under the “strong mayor” form of government that city voters approved and under which Webber is the first mayor to serve, he is the city’s chief executive, not just a ceremonial figurehead, as before. If he wants to try a reorganization to improve city services and operations, and it really costs only an additional $21,000, he needs to give it a try. If it works, we’ll see the proof in such areas as fixing potholes, clearing weeds and trash along the streets, cleaner parks, speeding up the business permitting process, creation of affordable housing (and not just more housing), effective policing, plans for housing and aid for the homeless, and successful development of the Midtown Campus.

It always good to be wary of such catchphrases as “re-imagining city government.” But, so far, the criticism of Webber’s plan has been mainly about process, not the plan itself.

With the divided governing board’s approval of the reorganization last week, Webber and his staff can now show us all what this new-fangled city operations chart can really do.